Los Angeles Holocaust Museum

Until I moved to the Miracle Mile area last spring, I used to take my daily runs in Pan Pacific Park. In the fall of 2008, ground was broken on the new Holocaust museum at the north end of the park. I watched as the odd building was constructed, how construction stalled at the depths of the recession, and how it picked up again when I can only assume people were comfortable making donations again. The museum was finally completed last fall. I had seen the outside of it several times, but I finally got around to going inside this week. And to my surprise, I was slightly disappointed.

The building itself is not a disappointment. It is a low, swooping building with grass on top — perfect for a park. Much of the museum space is underground which is appropriate given the dark, grim subject matter.

There were two pleasant surprises when I checked in at the main desk — first, it was free to enter the museum. Second, I was issued an iPod Touch with large 1970s-era headphones. The woman behind the counter explained that each display has a number, and all I had to do is punch that number into the device, and I get a detailed description. Sounds pretty cool, right? That’s what I thought.

The museum is made up mostly of large panels with a picture on it, be it Hitler, a concentration camp or emaciated Jews. I plugged in the number on the panel and listened as a voice (some of them quite annoying, actually) told me a story about the panel. The first problem I had is, “what do I do as I listen?” I noticed I would just stand there in front the panel, listening. That seemed kind of silly so I started walking around, looking at artifacts. But then I realized I wasn’t listening anymore to the description as I concentrated on the artifacts. Speaking of the artifacts, many of them had no description, so I really had no idea what I was looking at. The New York Times reports that more labels will soon be added.

Perhaps this is what all museums in the 21st Century will be like, catering to a high-tech generation of people who don’t want to read, but only want things read to them.

The other problem is that there are more than 100 panels. You could spend many, many hours there if you want to listen to each one. Good thing it’s free, so you can go back and do it in phases. I also didn’t like wearing wearing headphones the entire time. They made me feel isolated, and left me with no connection to my fellow museum-goers. I took them off as much as I could.

I think the audio tour is a good idea, but there needs to be text as well. Maybe half of the panels should be audio, the other half text. Things should be mixed up is order to break up the monotony. My favorite parts of the museum (and the only text parts) were blow-ups of historical pages from the Los Angeles Times that were scattered about, detailing the reporting the newspaper did on the Holocaust.

The museum does have it’s positives, of course. There is an innovative table that is basically a huge interactive video screen with floating pictures — drag a picture and get information about it. There are several other interactive screens with information about individual concentration camps right next to a really cool scale-model of one camp. And the dozen or so audio descriptions to which I did listen were very informative, as well as heartbreaking.

Overall the museum is definitely worthy of  a visit or two, and while you’re there, take a walk around Pan Pacific Park. It really is quite beautiful and severely underused. Curbed LA once called it, “the park across the street from The Grove that you’ve never stepped foot in.” That should change — perhaps the museum can help that.